Routing 3G — better with batteries

Making the most of 3g data card idea of router

Vodafone wants to move beyond mobile telephony and its adoption of the Linksys WRT54G3G wi-fi/3G router is one example of this new direction the company is taking.

The idea behind the router is to make the most of Vodafone’s 3G data card. This normally fits into the PCMCIA slot on laptops. However, this isn’t very useful when you want to connect to Vodafone’s 3G network using a desktop PC as these don’t usually have a PCMCIA slot. It’s also a problem if you want share the connection but don’t want to make the card-fitted laptop a firewall router for other machines.

The Vodafone Mobile Card (VMC) fits into the PCMCIA slot, which sits either on the top or the side of the machine. The red bulbous end of the VMC juts out like a large boil, but as this is the aerial this is necessary. Speaking of which, a booster aerial for the VMC would be worthwhile to get the most out of the 3G router, especially if you’re sharing the connection as you’ll want it to be as fast as possible.

Set-up of the Linksys router was undramatic. It offers a four-port fast ethernet switch (100Mbit/s per port) and 802.11b and 802.11g wireless connections, at 11Mbit/s and 54Mbit/s link-speeds, respectively. A “stateful” packet inspection firewall is included and, while the router comes pre-configured for quick and easy use by the non-technical, there are plenty of advanced features if needed, including quality of service settings.

In use, the router performed as advertised. Since the internet connection is Vodafone’s 3G service, the speed is 384kbit/s downstream and a rather slow 64kbit/s upstream. This is where Vodafone’s network design choices cramp an otherwise good product — the narrow upstream channel means sharing the connection isn’t much fun and it’s certainly not ideal for transmitting large files. One good thing with Vodafone’s 3G network, however, is that it generally delivers the advertised speeds.

On this subject, it is worth noting that Vodafone’s 3G service has substantially higher latency than Telecom’s and than any wi-fi connection. It also uses compression to reduce the amount of data passed across the network. This means that image quality on web page pictures is degraded unless you use an access point without the data compression — in which case you’ll use more data.

All round, the 3G router would be a very cool product indeed if it ran on batteries. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. It is amazing Linksys didn’t include the very feature most prospective customers of the WRT54 would want for increased mobility.

The Linksys WRT54G3G costs $849 through Vodafone. The price includes the VMC but no data plan. As the router will likely see heavier use than handheld 3G devices, Vodafone recommends its $149 plan, with 1GB data cap. However, for temporary use, there are also 250MB ($79) and 500MB ($99) plans. Using plans with lower data caps than this is probably not a good idea for general internet usage over long time periods, as excess data charges are steep at $1 per megabyte.

This is a good product, but the router would perform better if Vodafone allowed data-card customers a fatter upstream pipe and also asked Linksys to include batteries.

Linksys WRT54G3G

Pros: Ease of setup

Ease of use

Cons: Upload speed latency

Lack of batteries

Price: $849

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